Friday, March 13, 2009
Book Review: World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler
I read James Howard Kunstler's blog and from reading that, I was not necessarily interested in a work of fiction by him (his style can be a bit caustic and overly sarcastic) but my library had it so I borrowed World Made by Hand. I was a bit cautious because I really don't need any more gloom and doom predictions but it was okay in that regard. I can't say that the book is a great work of literature but it was interesting and problematic in ways that are difficult for me to overlook and, unfortunately, will forever color how I read Kunstler's other writings.
When we read we bring our own identities and experiences to what we're reading so of course I kept that in mind. But as a woman, the book was highly offensive and as a Black person, it was equally offensive. In this work that imagines a post-oil future, the world has returned back to the way things were in the early 1800s. Women are only good for sex and domestic duties. This is a male-dominated world where women are only valuable for what their bodies do not for who they are. Even to this day, this is a struggle women are still fighting but without all the modern living distractions and societal emphasis on inclusion, equality and political correctness, it just intensifies things. Apparently, no female doctors, lawyers, law enforcement, engineers or high level corporate executives have ever existed or else they were all wiped out by the flu. Hell, even a women being able to skillfully angle a fish gives the main character some pause. Women are notable because of their beauty (or once being beautiful) and their ability to bake bread and cook well. Black people are only relevant as participants in race wars. Seriously, there are NO BLACK PEOPLE whatsoever in Kunstler's futuristic imaginations. So, the only people who really matter in this futuristic world are White men.
Otherwise, the story was just okay. It lumped along in some places and beleaguered some points to the point of exhaustion. Kunstler keeps on referring to "the old days" and trying to remind the readers how totally different this world is from the one we are living in today. Unfortunately, for any of us who have traveled to third world nations, especially if we've visited remote villages, the world Kunstler imagines is one that already exists there. Maybe a tad bit better. In this town, at least, there's running water and the soil is fertile enough where anyone with some gardening know-how can grow something. Electricity is not a given but it flickers on every once in a while (eventually it goes out permanently). I was not impressed by "difficulty" of this world Kunstler imagines and, as the main character states toward the end, things did fall back into normality. To be fair, it seems that this town where the story takes place is one of the more fortunate areas of the country where some semblance of order exists. Elsewhere there is pure chaos, violence and, of course, race wars. (Ah, those pesky Negroes.) But this town has held their little society together and at the end seems to be on it's way to getting better.
I couldn't help but to draw comparisons between Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and this novel. Parable of the Sower is ten times more brutal yet, in my mind, the writing is much more artistic and skilled and inclusive. Even though these books both imagine a world so totally different than the one I live in now, it's just so interesting to me that White male privilege would still carry over in Kunstler's futuristic world while in Ms. Butler's futuristic world, those privileges are hardly relevant anymore. It seems the futures we imagine are informed by our current realities.
Some interesting similarities were, of course, the obvious absence of cars. In WMbH, all cars have been stripped for their metal in the "Great Collection". In PotS, they're just gone and the protagonist marvels at a world where one person had to have a 3 car garage to house the cars. In both stories, self-sufficieny in food production is a must. The fruits and vegetables they eat, they plant and I for one, take some small joy in the fact that in both these stories, the Earth is still giving, still producing. The meat they eat, they catch or raise and butcher. Ironically, in both books, wheat is a difficult grain to come by. In WMbH, the people substitute corn bread for wheat bread/cakes and in PotS, there really are no substitutes except for acorn bread which it doesn't seem many people know how to make. In both books, community is essential to survival. Those who are not part of a strong community are doomed--no way around it. Community is the only thing that provides safety and some security. Another interesting similarity is that religion and questions about God feature regularly in both books. In WMbH, there's an enigmatic, ultra-religious sect that moves into town with plenty of loyal, hard-working followers. In PotS, the main character is obviously going to be the originator of a brand new (and equally enigmatic) religion, builds followers and eventually settles on some land that will clearly be the religion's headquarters (I haven't read the sequel to PotS and I'm not sure I will).
I enjoyed World Made by Hand for what it was. It was a creative and well-rounded story despite its problems. It was funny at times (like when the main character tries to describe to a young child what a car was) and made you really think at others (because there was indeed brutality and violence and makes you hope that the changing times will bring out the God in people and the Devil in them). Overall, especially compared to Parable of the Sower, the futuristic world of Kunstler's is not that bad. It's livable or at least I could imagine myself living in it. Not so with Butler's future world where gated communities provided a only a semblance of security. That security only lasts for about a quarter of Butler's novel and we are plunged right into the violent, chaotic world outside of the gates. Kunstler keeps his entire story, for the most part, close to the fairly orderly town.
Anyway, I'm ready to read a novel that imagines a post-oil future that hasn't gone to hell in a hand basket. I hope to stumble across one. Maybe I'll have to write it. :)